Figuring out how to stop a toddler from hitting is no easy task! And if you are a first time mom, it’s even more shocking. Right up there with with potty training kids who won’t poop on the toilet and getting your toddler to stop whining.
How you help your child stop hitting will look different based on their age, but in this post I’m sharing our experience with our 3 kids around age 2.
Each of my kids went through an experimental toddler hitting and biting phase around 20 months. Instead of falling off my chair in shock that my perfect baby could do something so mean, I said, “It has begun” and got to work.
This is very normal, and I’m going to share how to stop it when you commit to addressing it every time. It should be a short lived problem, and over within a couple of months!
Hopefully you’ll find some tips to practice right away to stop you toddler from hitting, biting, and pushing that has worked for us with all 3 kids.
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Your toddler understands you perfectly and is capable of learning self control
There is a lot of information out there about how much your child understands under age 2. As a first time parent I was often confused about how much my son could understand because he was a late talker.
I parent with the belief that kids can understand WAY more than we think before they can talk, and they can definitely understand tone and body language.
When my first was newly walking, I asked him to put a dirty shirt in the laundry basket. He couldn’t talk yet and I was curious to see if he could understand those directions.
He ran to the back of the hallway and did it! I realized I had been operating as though he couldn’t understand me…and letting a lot of behaviors slide.
My point here is that by the time your child starts hitting, they can understand most of what you say and you can use tone and facial expression to make your words more clear.
Why do toddlers hit?
These poor little guys, trying to communicate and figure out what they’re allowed to have control of.
I’ve seen my toddlers hit in frustration, because they want something, defending a toy from someone, to get food, to nurse, or when they didn’t get their way.
Unfortunately, sometimes your toddler may also be too tired, hungry, or overstimulated to show any kind of self control. You are not a bad mom if so! Promise.
I’ve had plenty of moments where we just had distract or simply get some food in a hungry toddler’s belly. Otherwise the world is crumbling and cannot be fixed. Start with the easy checklist of:
- are they tired?
And how ironic that for me as a mom, those exact same things are MY own triggers! If I’m super tired or hungry ( “hangry” as my family calls it)….I’m also pretty prone to losing self control and not responding well.
If you’re not getting anywhere with telling your toddler to stop hitting you, it may be that you need to address those other factors first.
More toddler posts you may love
How long does the toddler hitting phase last?
The hitting phase doesn’t last too long…but it won’t just go away on it’s own. You’ll have to work on it every time you see it or it might stay and get worse.
My kids have all started hitting somewhere between 18 months – 2 years. So if you have older kids, this exact method may not be the best for your situation.
The bad news is you won’t be off the hook by tomorrow. Or the next day.
The good news is, the hitting only lasted for about a month with each of our 3 kids. The earlier you catch it, the better!
And the more calm and consistent you are, the faster your toddler should understand what’s expected and develop self control.
You may also enjoy reading: Our routine with an 18 month old
Worried about your toddler hitting your new baby?
Another thing to note is that these changes can come right around the time parents have a new baby.
No doubt there’s some kind of developmental timer. But I think it’s also hard for toddlers who want more attention AND independence but aren’t really getting as much as they’d like due to the new baby.
To help your toddler have good feelings toward the baby and avoid jealousy, let them snuggle the baby with you. Point out how much the baby loved it when they…(danced, were gentle, made the baby smile, etc).
I also tried to make an effort to spend a tiny bit of one on one time with my toddler each day. Simple things like reading with them on my lap or doing Play Doh at the table. The less I connected, the more I snapped.
How to get your toddler to stop hitting (3 basic steps)
Ok, here’s how we addressed it. Feel free to do what you think is best because you know your child better than anyone!
Step 1. Remove your toddler and tell them hitting is not safe.
If you’re a mom, you know that an 18 month or 2 year old has a tiny attention span. Which means you have to deal with hitting/biting/shoving that instant.
You can’t wait one minute. Or until you get home. Because they have already forgotten what you are talking about.
Remove them from the situation to talk to them, or hold them if needed.
When our kids have tried hitting or biting (usually sometime between 18 months – 2 years) we hold their arm and tell them, “No, you can’t hit. That’s not safe. Show me gentle.”
I use this phrase a LOT for about 1 month. Or until they see the new boundary and begin to learn (sometimes for the 1st time) what self control is.
Stay calm when your toddler hits you
Wait for their reaction. It might be tears, a full on tantrum, or they might try to squirm free to do it again.
They might be embarrassed or mad. Or they may just stare at you to see what you’re going to do.
Try to stay calm (hard, I know!) and just tell them what you expect in a plain tone. Don’t shame them, or give them a huge lecture.
But don’t let them keep doing it.
You also need to honestly assess your tone and reaction when your toddler tries to hit, bite, or punch.
Because if we are honest, toddlers can make our blood boil at times, and we are not always calm and in control of our own emotions as moms.
There’s a book for you called “Triggers” that will seriously help you identify what sends you over the edge and how to gain control of what triggers your anger!
If you are out of control, “ragey”, or scare them with your threatening voice…how can you expect them to different?
Step 2. Show them what to do instead of hitting.
Thanks to my smart husband’s advice, any time we tell our toddlers not to do something, we try to tell them what they CAN do so there is no confusion. Kids really do want to please us, so showing them how they can is really helpful I think.
My goal here is to model a gentle behavior for them, something they can copy or at least start to register is an ok reaction.
Sometimes this looks like:
- Modeling your hand softly rubbing their arm. Since toddlers naturally copy what they see (eventually), you are teaching them what to do instead.
- Waiting for a turn with the toy they want. If your toddler pushes or hits to get what he wants, it’s your job to show them that’s not acceptable. Make them wait till someone puts the toy down. If they continue to try and hit or take, don’t let them have the toy.
- Teaching them to say please when they want something instead of hitting to get it. If your toddler can’t talk yet, you can easily teach them please in sign language! It’s simply rubbing a flat hand on their chest. This worked wonders for two of my less verbal kids.
What if your toddler hits another child?
I don’t have my kids practice “showing me gentle” to another kid if they hit, because often times they just need space or to be picked up.
And honestly, I’m afraid they’ll just go in for a second slam if I did if the emotions are still high.
I DO tell them the same thing as above, that we don’t hit and that hitting hurts. That they can ask for a turn and wait (if that seemed like the reason).
And remember, no parent is going to fault you that your toddler hit their kid IF you make an effort to deal with it.
What does bother other moms is if you don’t do a thing and let your toddler push or hit to get what they want.
Step 3. Praise them like crazy when they are gentle.
Never underestimate the power of clapping and cheering for a toddler desperate for attention when they show self control after trying to push or hit!
Your job in the moment is to keep your kid safe, others safe, and to be firm with what you expect of them.
So when my toddler calms down and copies me by gently rubbing my arm, I cheer for him and say, “That’s so nice! So gentle!”
Or if he just calms down and stops swinging his fists, I praise that too. “That’s better, thank you.”
You’re helping them to want to be gentle and kind just to get all that good attention.
Stay close by your toddler until they are no longer hitting
If there’s ever a time to be a helicopter parent, it’s when your toddler tries to hit or bite! It’s the fastest way to shut it down.
If your toddler just hit for the first time, or not, you have work to do! Expect they’ll try it again.
The fastest way to put an end to it is to catch it and correct it every single time. If that’s even possible.
As a stay at home mom, it’s a little bit easier because I’m with them all day. But I don’t see everything.
If you are not with them all day, you can still be consistent with your expectations when you are around.
Why we nap our kids through the toddler years and beyond:
Naps through the preschool years have helped my kids have more control over their emotions, which helps in the hitting phase too.
My friends always ask what magic fairy dust I use to get them to nap at x, y, and z ages. I don’t have any. I think naps have just been a pretty non negotiable part of our routine, with many nap strikes in between.
Here’s how we napped 3 kids at the same time when they were all really little.
I can usually tell when they are still needing naps because without one they become whiney and unable to control themselves by about 2 or 3pm. With a nap, everyone does better!
Currently the 4 and 6 year old still nap together in the same room. We do skip naps up to about half the week with their ages, and sub quiet time for the rest.
But if you find your 2 or 3 year old hitting or biting you and unable to have any self control…it really could be they are just tired.
How to teach your toddler to be more gentle
We have tried to teach the word “gentle” as soon as possible by showing them what gentle is with a hand on the arm or cheek while saying gentle.
Starting this, even around 1 years old, helps them to know what you do want from them when the hitting phase starts.
An example of how I handled my toddler hitting me
My 3rd toddler first hit me (with a huge pout face) when he wanted to nurse after I said, “not now”. He didn’t get what he wanted and lashed out with emotion.
In this situation I couldn’t nurse, even if he did end up being polite.
That made it even harder because I couldn’t give him what he wanted, even if he was polite.
I held his hand while saying in a firm and serious voice, “We don’t hit. That hurts mama. Show me gentle.” And rubbed my chest lightly so he could see what I wanted.
He squirmed and tried to get free to do it again, now even more frustrated. I held him until he could calm down and show some self control. I kind of had to keep his arms in a hug so he wouldn’t hit.
At the first sign of him calming down, I said, “That’s better!” And I took his hand to lightly stroke my face saying something like, “that’s polite”. Or, “good boy”…I can’t remember what I said.
He did settle eventually.
No, I wasn’t able to nurse him just because he calmed down…he was still mad. But he wasn’t hitting me and that was a win.
Reasons toddlers hit
Once your precious angel lashes out and hits your chest or walks up to another toddler and whacks them, don’t panic. Or worry about other moms judging you.
Because 99.9% of them have probably had a kid who went through a hitting phase and felt clueless about what to do at first.
Hide the smoke that’s coming out of your nostrils. And think about why they might try hitting in that moment. Here’s a few reasons:
They are curious.
What will happen if I…(bite my sibling’s arm to get the toy or smack mom in the face).
They are upset.
These poor little things have to be taught how to handle emotions. What’s appropriate and what’s not isn’t obvious to them at first.
No self control.
Self control is not natural!
But it’s never too early to start teaching toddlers self control, even at 18 months! This is how a baby can be taught not to touch a light socket, or refrain from hitting you.
Need more attention.
Sometimes toddlers hit because they want you to pay attention to them! Hitting works to get your attention, right?
My experience is that it always goes well for me when I pay more attention to my kids than less…not saying I do it well or enough even as a stay at home mom.
Try praising them for dumb little things that are good, rather than saying mostly “no, stop that, don’t hit, put that down…” You get the idea. I’ve done it both ways and positive attention wins every time!
At some point with each toddler I’ve seen them hit because in all reality they NEED their nap.
If this is likely the reason, you just gotta get through it, try not to blame them, and it sucks.
They want what someone else has.
Toddlers have to be taught they can’t hit to get what they want. Maybe it’s a toy at the park.
If this happens, it’s really important that they don’t get what they were after unless they do what you ask. Like wait till the other toddler is done playing with it. Or say please, etc.
Should you discipline when a toddler hits?
I personally prefer using natural consequences with a toddler in the hitting stage.
- If my toddler whacks my chest or hits me when he wants to nurse, I don’t let him nurse.
- When he hits his sibling to get a toy, he cannot have a turn until he asks kindly (even if that’s saying please in sign language).
- If he pushes a kid out of the way to get up the slide first, I take him off the slide and make him get in line or not slide.
But it can’t continue because it’s not safe. Our job is to teach them boundaries and self control. Easier said than done, right?!
But it makes them happier and you too. Here’s a great post on preventing aggressive toddler behavior.
What not to do, speaking from experience
What hasn’t worked at 2 years old (give or take half a year) is time out or speaking harshly. It ends up being a harder problem to get them to stay put or stop howling from a pack n play.
And then they are just mad about being stuck, and you can’t address the hitting that happened 3 minutes ago because it’s been long forgotten.
Try to deal with toddler hitting privately
Another thing that often doesn’t work well for me is to try and work through it while other people are watching. The spotlight is NOT good for mom or toddler.
This has been a challenge for me as a mom when grandparents visit and are watching.
It opens up the door for a toddler to become embarrassed and feel like they have to perform or test you in front of people (maybe in-laws, siblings, friends, or strangers out in public). Plus, it also puts you on the spot to in an already volatile situation.
When possible, I always to try to take my child to another quiet room (or out of the park for a moment) so there is no pressure on me or them to have it figured out or “be right” in front of others.
You got this mama! Don’t give up, even if it means trying out something new or seems to be taking longer than you think.
Stay calm, set your boundaries every time, and reassure them that you love them! There are a lot of emotions in that little body.
Toddler parenting book recommendations
If you want a book to help you understand and better discipline your toddler, I purchased and loved “No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame”
While I don’t follow all her advice, I found it helpful and like that it utilizes a lot of natural consequences for teaching toddlers.
She is a GEM that’s full of great tips for parents of toddlers and can help you through those tough years!